The Firing of the Music Teacher
BY RICHARD KRAUSE
Nothing changed. The campus went on as before, everybody quiet as a nun concerned only about their own private vows. That’s the way it is with people who regard themselves as religious. They wear nothing on their sleeve but their own souls.
Nobody was visibly burned up. That was for monks decades earlier to protest the war in Vietnam, not something that occurred in the backwaters of Kentucky along the Cumberland River where the terrain is hilly and the hollows exist inside each of us.
Yes, I include myself too.
It is only one music teacher, so get real. Despite the firing it is only his livelihood we are talking about. And kids, he doesn’t have any yet, only his music and his girlfriend. Girlfriend! It’s what most of us don’t have. What a luxury to not be married yet! To have that freedom. We’ve already made our decision. Our wives are already in our homes, our lives determined, fixed, mostly stale.
Tom was too fresh anyway, and never showed the President the proper respect it was said. At the time we didn’t know how much she needed that, how quickly she took offence, how she never forgot, could hold a grudge against any of us that we didn’t even notice it until years later when all at once out of the blue we’d get the shaft and a score we didn’t even realize would be settled, not the head-on assault against the music teacher like when she first arrived.
She was new then, and so we couldn’t tell why she came down on him. Like a ton of bricks someone said, the cacophony was so strident, unmusical to us that we had all we could do not to clamp our hands over our ears and run out of the room.
The rumors spread like wildfire about Tom Donne. They said he was finished. At the time that was beyond us. His music was intimidating to some. Tom was in his own world. He felt a stunning ownership of his field akin to the only real estate on the block, not so much space as he never complained about not having the best office like the rest of us, but the very air we breathed, its vibration as we were out walking is what he controlled. The notes in it, the melody of breezes through the trees, the sounds only he registered as he walked along. The mice scratching along the baseboards, the musicality of their appetite. That’s what was beyond us that he caught. Tom was always composing when he walked and talked; even the lilt he had in his voice was musical, or the agitated drumming of his fingertips on a table or the tapping of his shoe, or at the end of what you said, the rising intonation he caught, then the deep base of something Beethovian, the bottom feeding of Dat dat dat dah! He always added to something you’d say about music, about the divine reach of Mozart soaring like a bird scattering droplets of light on every bush as it climbed to the heavens; he set to music even the shiny chrome off a car racing by. Tom wasn’t all there for anyone who couldn’t appreciate his enthusiasm for the world around him. His mind was lightning fast encompassing the sounds of everyday life, or the beautifully emergent melody of a Chopin piece through an open window, freed from earthly constraints, played to the hilt, not unlike Excalibur only a few could remove.
We privately suspected the President was tone deaf like so many people in charge who respond only to the sound of their own voices. We imagined she heard only what she perceived to be her own melody, but she had the power of the gavel, its concussion as judge, jury, and executioner. She never included the rest of us in the conversation of who’d stay or go. She eventually gathered around her yes men who all repeated the same refrain. That was the only music she heard.
We did have a meeting only because she was new. Holly Hock was her name as if in Kentucky the flashing hooves raised in the air exhibited the perfect picture of a thoroughbred. After all she had come from Mississippi and would bring us Southern culture, but we didn’t realize it accompanied the incendiary art of firing.
Music was out and visual representation was in. How things looked trumped anything heard. The beautification of the campus never involved the music teacher. She wanted someone to paint her, lionize her as Napoleon on a horse, the ultimate equestrienne performing at the international games in Lexington, and the only music permitted were the trumpets announcing her arrival and the clop of hooves, nothing that reached for the heavens. Yes, Tom Donne was finished and she newly hired was just getting started. It was a tableau vivant she envisioned that froze her in a perfect representation of the Commander-in-Chief.
But the question was why she had come to the meeting. What did she have against him? we all speculated. He himself had only arrived a year earlier. Couldn’t she use him at least for background music?
The meeting was scheduled for Monday morning with the Humanities Division. She’d entertain questions about the firing, put nicely the letting go of Tom Donne; his contract just wouldn’t be renewed, it was said.
We were quite unwilling to believe, too, all the fires in town that someone pointed out. We questioned who set them. Were those mysterious house fires no one knew about until the article in the Commonwealth Journal came out a coincidence? Were the fires connected to rumors of Tom’s firing, like a drumbeat to the flames on campus, capturing their essence. Was Tom the culmination of the crackling sounds that reached the next village, rumors that because the music teacher was being fired art instructors all over should make ready to apply, that sound was out and silent portraiture was in? Was someone marshalling opposition against the decision by starting these fires? Little did we know as we sat in the room with the President what else would come of her decision.
Was it faulty wiring that caused the fires, a short circuit, a stove left unattended, a cigarette in bed after some illicit lovemaking? Did it affect everyone’s private life, the firing? Was it sexual! There you have it most of the time. Some shenanigans going on in the workplace that spills over into the community bedrooms, not generated by official policy in a firing. Of course we don’t call it that. Who’d want the conflagration of mass layoffs to follow, so we start one at a time. Who’d get back up from that but a tone deaf public who claimed they’d heard nothing.
It could certainly be the student body. Some passion its youth inspired that the music teacher took advantage of. After all, he only had one girlfriend. Why not two, or three, or a whole class of them? Did the music teacher, I hate to mention it, affect everyone that way? Was it a contagion, and not a conflagration? Was the wildfire already on campus, the burning up of students’ sensibilities, flames of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Chopin, or Tchaikovsky or Scriabin, or all those smug marches? Okay, admit the charred remains of a student body that no one recognized, burning with private passion, with the naked desire of the ear to the ground for every vibration from Tom, for every high note that he hit? For the administration, Tom Donne could be secretly named Black for the dithyrambic orgy of mass burning of not books but bodies.The faculty sat there unwilling to say anything, too fearful for their own jobs to speak up.
One of us schemed to be out of town taking his child to his first day at college, another claimed illness, a third just forgot, a fourth wouldn’t interrupt her sabbatical, but I was there and it fell on me. I didn’t mind the ton of bricks, had the illusion I was broad-shouldered, but it could be called outright stupidity. For I too was admittedly tone deaf, but loved what I wasn’t skilled at, enraptured by sound, how it etherealized everything then brought home the thunderous clap, how it matched nature in all its violence and brutality, then the absolute majesty followed by the tender whisperings of a brook, exquisitely attuned to the small things in life, to the bee buzzing, to the warm sunlight and a clear running stream. Yes, I was seduced by the discipline. It was titanic and breathlessly gentle by turns as to be beyond words and even pictures. Painting I loved, but music beguiled me and that is why I defended Tom to the hilt knowing he was led by a different drummer, had access to sounds I didn’t, and so I cocked my ear around him to share in what I considered the distant clop leading to the music of the spheres. He was the instrument that brought the best out of us.
We sat at the rectangular table to hear about his fate, but nobody was willing to break the silence.
“We just want to know why,” I finally blurted out. “Why is Tom being let go, why is his contract not being renewed? Do you have something against him?”
“Jack, if you knew me you’d know that would never be the case. It is something I cannot discuss, for Tom’s benefit. It’s a private matter.”
“I don’t understand. How are we to accept something that is not clear. I’ve talked to Tom and he says he himself doesn’t know the reason.”
“It’s confidential, Jack.”
“But if he doesn’t know what it is, how are we or anyone to understand, or address it?”
“Is it something actionable, legally?”
“Tom just isn’t a good fit for our school. Yes, he’s is a talented teacher, but his abilities will be better served elsewhere.”
“What exactly does that mean?”
“I mean he just doesn’t fit in with the plan we have for the future of Cumberland College. I’d like to say more, but I am not at liberty to say. Jack, my hands are tied.”
“But if he has to have done something, certainly he should know what it is to address it.”
“I think he knows, Jack.”
“Then I am baffled that he wouldn’t tell me. He says he doesn’t know. Have you talked to him?”
“Yes, and no.”
No one else spoke up. The silence was palpable, speechless at the ambiguity.
I continued questioning the President but she was not forthcoming with any more information, only insisted it was not personal and repeated that Tom was not a good fit.
One Division member claimed Tom left her church as choir director.
“That’s his business,” I said. “This is a nonsectarian institution.”
“There were problems,” she said, “but I can’t discuss them.”
It sounded as if Tom was being railroaded. Perhaps only I could hear the train whistle at the other end of town, the marshalling of rustics gathering their most dangerous tools to descend on the harmless music teacher. Perhaps they blamed the firing on him. Maybe they knew about the seductions of whole classes, how the teacher mesmerized students. Maybe it was the editorial about the fires in town that roused them. Who knows what anyone’s passion for their field might inspire, others setting fires out of sheer jealousy. Maybe Tom was more a threat than we knew about.
After the meeting when the President left, two faculty members came up to me and expressed their sorrow over Tom’s dismissal. One was in tears, blubbering that she was going to miss him.
I wanted to say, why didn’t you speak up, but swallowed my words.
Why was the firing? Who started it we were always trying to find out. Did Tom have a secret enemy? Would the art teacher hired find out it was like Orozco’s ceiling in Guadalajara that sent the music teacher up reaching the church ceiling where for the initiate the sounds of music incorporated the crackling flames. Who collected the faggots that led up to it? And is this also what happened to those poor women in Salem? Did some consider all screams musical, as the flames devoured the bodies, splintering bones and burning fat, a choral ensemble transported heavenward, and was it something Tom was to expect, that hadn’t happened yet in the simple announcement of the firing? Who fed the fire this time, gathered the kindling? Who poured on the gasoline, lit the fuse, sent Tom charred out of the student body, and identified all those student witches? Did a bevy of them accompany him at a naked rally? Would the remains be found at the side of the road? Some beautification!
Still we were waiting to hear. What would be the result of the firing? Tom turning on himself? After all he was already fired. Did that stop the music and usher in the flames?
Was this modeled on a town in Spain, involving the Grand Inquisitor himself, that placed Tom at the stake, the tone deaf cone hats that hate melody busying themselves gathering wood. But again we are only a backwater college. No open repentance was required, no disavowal of faith. Tom had directed another choir in town after he left the one church. Apparently he was still in demand.
It could have been the burning at Mill Springs, reviving the battlefield. Johnny Reb’s revenge on Tom who came from Ohio, not the Mississippi of the President. The South still needed protection from the Northerners, Yankees. Who knows what will filter down if you let it flourish?
It could have been someone guilty over a missile in Iraq or Afghanistan, its whistling before it took out a wedding party. The high pitched sound of that participated in this firing. The President probably had helpmeets, and in our own Division, with different agendas. Or the thirty-five Middle Eastern celebrants, was Tom to rectify their remains? Was only Tom’s music left to right that wrong, had he all the danger of a free spirit that might highlight that tragedy? Maybe his notes, the starkest melody would capture the slow lugubrious tread of the student body moving around campus unchallenged, implanting the ghosts of the wedding elsewhere. And Tom himself had to be taken out to remove that overseas horror from coming to our campus. Why should we suffer for what was done thousands of miles away? Removing Tom would remove the instrument that might make that happen.
Could it be that the President was afraid that Tom with his composing abilities was the prime culprit who’d educate everyone to what exactly happened, that his music would capture the grief of all those innocent civilians? The President and her cronies were the prime suspects in the drop in enrollment, in the frightening away of students so they fled to other institutions. Could the screams of the innocents after that bombing be on their minds and confused with the loss of students on campus, especially the Provost’s whose son had recently returned from Iraq. Surely the music died, erasing the girl in Vietnam running naked down the road after her village was napalmed, her facial grimace the very mask of tragedy. Did the fear of resurrecting that contribute to Tom’s removal? Did Tom possess the danger of all free spirits for just what they might set to music? In all our minds it was young girls moaning from pleasure, but in reality could it be something entirely different that could change to shrieks in a second?
It could have been the Iraqi villagers’ guns firing in the air that got them bombed. Tom discovered the mistake musically, exultant peals of laughter, then a staccato melody, identifying the syncopation of running steps, and then the explosions, the screams, and all the charred remains. One note took in an arm, its reach cut short, another the rubber mask of an emptied face with no bones inside, or a foot poised taking a step without a body.
I remember Tom exiting buildings on campus bursting into song,
“Oh, what a beautiful mornin’
Oh what a beautiful day
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s going my way”
That would have been the perfect timing for the explosion, and you knew his volatile nature could capture both and put them together, the exultant joy and then the horror that erased everything. Perhaps we had to get rid of anyone who could do that.
There were no limits to his exuberance. Maybe that was the problem, how at all institutions we set limits on each other, weed out with tenure the excesses of anyone who can’t be controlled by others, college campuses that can’t reproduce the horrors abroad in pictures, not even musically. Tom had to go. We didn’t understand it at the time. One doesn’t shine before others. Even a star with his talent had to be plucked from the firmament, especially if its rays needle us. No, he wasn’t a good fit.
Tom ultimately was undeterred by the firing.
The President admitted he was a talented man and would “do well taking his talents elsewhere.” She got no objections from most of us.
I quizzed her what that meant, but I never got a straight answer.
What I didn’t like was that there was no outright courage to burn him at the stake like in the past, only the whispering that something was wrong. The weak rumors of the cowardly who protested his not being choir director at a local church any longer. It was their own idea of character assassination, those who had never protested the killing overseas were probably fearful that Tom would compose a dirge that would sting their consciences, or reproduce the horror of the actual killing and the earsplitting lamentations that followed.
They were afraid of actually setting the teacher on fire, an actual burning ceremony, for no one wants to hear fat sizzling, or see skin peeling off, experience the smell or screams, or pick up the crumbling remains afterwards. Maybe the art teacher would come and paint that, the gruesomeness, or transform it to some domestic scene, a marshmallow roast.
“It’s easier to hear the truth than see it,” someone said.
He was quickly shushed.
It was mentioned that there was already talk about Tom in the community.
“It is spreading like wildfire.”
“Did you see the mole above his right cheek?” one asked.
“And the supernumerary dactyl?” another added.
“His contract said they could terminate him at any time, smoke out the termite.”
“He’s not a good fit, even if he is just trying to make space for himself.”
“In the structure of our buildings on campus! They could collapse!”
“He’s positively unstable. He must go!”
“Yes, his passion will hollow everything out.”
“You think holocaust, the big burn swooping too close to earth. We got to get rid of him.”
“I like that, the big burn! You imagine him singeing us along with himself,” someone added.
“Yes, he’s got to go.”
“I got a bad feeling that the firing is going to affect us too. The crackling sounds will drown any pretense to music.”
“Flames have their own cadence, you know.”
“That’s not funny.”
“The arrogance that thinks it can control our sensibilities with music has to be stopped. Thinks he can connect the present with our past crimes! He’s the one who has something to hide. What do you think he is doing with the students?”
“Seducing them, that’s what he’s doing.”
“Yes, they could be our own daughters, or sons!”
Noisemakers will always win when we need a sacrifice; they can always find it with the drum rolls. Who needs a music teacher for that?
Will the tears of the choir members, or his students over his firing, put the fires out? Streams of them running unabated down their cheeks, collecting in the mouths of his persecutors like deluges. Will the water level rise and drown them all?
“Someone in the administration claims he beat his wife with a broomstick.”
“He probably did, he’s in his own world.”
“But he has no wife,” another said.
“That’s my point.”
“He’s free to do what he wants to anyone and there will be no consequences.”
“More than one house was mysteriously burned in the community over the weekend.”
“Jason, statistically it is only another fire. Don’t try to put them together and call it a conflagration.”
“But it’s not his fault,” someone said.
“What do you mean? The man is dangerous, I tell you. Anyone is who thinks he has the freedom to seduce his charges and produce anything he wants. He’s dangerous. We have to put an end to it.”
“Thank God the President already did.”
In fact I imagined it started one night from a simple bonfire I saw behind St. Mildred’s when I was walking late. A group of men were gathered, big burly figures silhouetted against the flames. I thought they were up to no good. I thought of medieval Spain, and afterwards the houses started to burn in town. Unexpected fires cropping up everywhere I knew would be the result. No one would be able to explain them. The imagined increase of fires made us all pause, seek for an explanation. Feel a little guilty about our hand in the lone firing. Could that too be something the President wasn’t at liberty to expose, reduced to what sparked the rest around town? Was it indeed a conflagration? Or could it be Tom himself, how he represented the singular firing, multiplied by the good citizens. Certainly it wasn’t one class’s response, their reprisal over the firing. Tom’s spineless colleagues whose lack of courage also made up the local citizenry, who had heard his enthusiasm conducting local choirs, playing the piano, had heard the exuberance of his compositions. They had done nothing.
His firing should have sparked more of a review. But nobody spoke up, all are protecting their own turf, even though fire is no respecter of turf.
“Didn’t you recognize false notes in his defending himself?”
“He mounted no defense.”
“That proved he was guilty.”
“But of what.”
“Creativity! Not being like us, going around doing what he wanted, bursting into song everywhere.”
“But do you have proof?”
“The President says she can’t talk about it.”
“That’s a police state.”
“No, Arnold, that’s the war brought home.”
“She’s complicit in this too.”
“Her secrecy. Her political affiliation.”
“He had to go so there won’t be a holocaust in our community, a mass firing on campus, that’s why we couldn’t speak up. So he wouldn’t provoke student unrest. We had to protect the student body from that man, especially the female students. Who knows, he probably lives with one! He stepped down from the Church choir and we don’t even know why.”
“Someone saw the light of the stained glass window, how its eerie red colored his face. He looked positively infernal, they said. It was as if they caught him in the act, red-handed. How could there be any other conclusion?”
“But what did he do? All of us could have been colored by that same light!”
“I don’t know, but it must have been something.”
“Something he did, Buster!”
“That’s what I want to know.”
“We don’t know yet, the President said that, didn’t she?”
“The red light looked like he’d already caught fire when he stepped out into the sunset. The President wasn’t responsible for that, was she?”
“Firing him,” someone said.
“Look, when he was conducting the choir, there were too many colors. He went too many places and that made people uneasy.”
“But that enriches the music.”
“Yes, with the devil’s touch,” someone said.
“You know he talked about the wedding parties in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“We are supposed to be academics!”
“No, we are Medievalists!”
“Yes, we can tell when someone’s possessed!”
“With a name like Donne we’d all be finished if he stays around. It sounds euphonious but its terminal and Tom, he should be drummed out of town!”
“That’s not music, that’s a threat.”
“You’ve heard of spontaneous combustion, haven’t you. It can happen at any time.”
“It’s happening now, Jennifer. Because the President’s brave. She sticks up for the rest of us.”
“Who wants that when she can’t control the blaze.”
“Yes, he’ll get severance money.”
“The President’s right.”
“He’s gotta go.”
“He could have gone up in flames himself. All that passion. She jumped on him at the right time. To save us all from conflagrations down the road and to save him from immolating himself just like those Vietnamese monks.”
“I don’t know what you saw at St. Mildred’s, but it’s not a good sign.”
“They are just ordinary house fires that take place in any small town.”
“Right. Just like what he’s done is an ordinary rumor.”
“Will you stop, Mathew.”
The faculty rarely got exercise, were largely sedentary, and slow to action.
One needs to be fired for everyone’s health, the faculty decided, to insure their way of life would be unmolested, not upset by disturbing notes, melodies not heard before, or suggestions of state crimes that could be set to music, not to mention their own domestic indiscretions.
Yes, melody and malady is the same thing to the unimaginative. You have to be on your guard.
“His passion was two-headed, each ignited his classes, and who knows if that would set everything aflame, an antiwar movement on campus, or late one afternoon when no one was looking there all at once the sunset took over, and we were all paralyzed by the beauty and convinced that we needed an art teacher to replace Tom. Maybe the President was on to something, the way light struck them all at once. Maybe the conflagration of dying colors was confused with the simple firing that they now didn’t know how to respond.”
“You can’t do what you want, say what you want, without suffering the consequences. Nobody can march to their own drummer.”
“Honest, folks, it’s a parade we are all part of. Everything, even the truth, becomes lies if we all go our own way. He’s just like Magritte’s lost jockey. It may make a fine silhouette, but musically it will not work. Everyone will be running out of the theater with their hands to their ears. The race will be run without them. Poor wandering Tom! Eventually like in Lear he’ll have to travel in disguise and live in a hovel. That’s just the facts of life, folks. The President’s right!”
“He’ll end up in Hell,” the Baptists among us insisted, mindful of his losing his position in the local church choir when nobody knew the reason. But they especially were suspicious. And what is suspicion but what there is about someone else that does not redound to our favor. We always claim it must be rooted out in others, what doesn’t promote us.
“But we are a college, a secular institution,” I claimed.
“Nothing’s secular, son,” as I got stared down.
“Nobody should have that much passion. Something’s wrong with him.”
“I have caught him not even looking at us,” someone said, “just whistling to himself.”
“Yes, just the other day he passed me as if I wasn’t even there, like I was invisible.”
“No, he’s not a good fit, not at all!” others repeated. “The President’s right.”
The blaze at dawn or sunset was so brilliant you couldn’t imagine the newly hired art teacher not capturing it, nor Tom not somehow disappearing into its remains so that in the clear light of day he was no longer seen at all on campus.
“He cut off his nose to spite his face, didn’t respect the President enough, put his music first.”
We all knew Pinocchio would catch fire eventually. Tom is just wooden kindling for the tone deaf. Yes, we cried for him, and that was by design. Our nonsupport, our tears damped the ardor we couldn’t duplicate much less admire after the criticism. No, he wasn’t a good fit. How could music be when it escapes us and his singing all the time got on our nerves. It would irritate anyone that didn’t want to take part in his musical performance.
Bring on the art teacher, that’s what we’ll hire next. Appearance is everything, appearance is reality, not these escapable notes no one can understand. Bring on someone to reproduce us. Not those abstracts, but something that looks like us that we can see and appreciate and most of all understand. Bring on the realists who know how to live in the real world and not let their passion get in the way. Those that will provide a photographic reproduction of, yes, even charred remains to assure us that Tom Donne is elsewhere, truly fired.
RICHARD KRAUSE’s collection of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, was published by Livingston Press and his epigram collection, Optical Biases, was published by Eyecorner Press in Denmark. His fiction appeared last year in Eastlit, The Oddville Press, Scarlet Leaf Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Indiana Voice Journal. He teaches at a community college in Kentucky.